Photographing the Beach at Sunset Using Your Digital SLR - dummies

Photographing the Beach at Sunset Using Your Digital SLR

By Doug Sahlin

The hour before sunset is known as “Golden Hour,” and is a great time to position your digital SLR for some glorious sunset shots. Clouds are bathed in wonderful hues of orange, pink, and purple. Add a sandy beach, ocean waves, and someone walking on the sand or in the water, and you have the recipe for a wonderful photograph.

The trick to a good sunset picture is having some interesting clouds in the sky. Look toward the western sky 45 minutes before sunset. If you see some nice clouds, grab your camera and get ready.

Setting up your digital SLR for sunset photos

When you photograph a beach at sunset, you want everything in focus, from the vegetation in the sand dunes to the distant clouds, which is what you get when you shoot in Aperture Priority mode with a small aperture of f/8 or smaller (a larger f/stop number). A low ISO setting ensures that you get a sharp image that has little or no digital noise. The Single Shot Focus mode is perfect because landscapes don’t move. When the camera achieves focus, you’re ready to shoot the picture. A wide-angle focal length range between 28mm and 35mm provides you with a wide view that captures the clouds and landscape with a nice reflection of the sun on the water.

While the sun sinks and eventually drops below the horizon, the amount of available light changes. Therefore, you need to increase the ISO setting to keep the aperture at f/8 or smaller.

Taking sunset pictures on the beach

Get to the beach about 20 minutes before sunset, find a suitable vantage point, and get your camera set up.

You don’t have to wait for the sun to go down, start taking pictures when the sun reflects on the bottom of the clouds and bathes them with a golden hue. Move around and compose pictures with interesting objects between you and the sun — beach vegetation and people walking on the beach add interest to your image.


Switch to a medium telephoto focal length between 85mm and 100mm, and zoom in on a feature, such as a lifeguard station or some vegetation. Focus on the feature and use a slightly larger aperture (a smaller f/stop number), such as f/5.6. These settings give you a limited depth of field. Your subject is in silhouette and sharp focus, and the sun and clouds are a pleasant blur.


If the clouds linger after the sun goes down, think about doing the same. As the sun sinks lower, it casts light on the clouds, turning them giddy shades of orange, purple, and blue, and making for wonderful pictures.


Surmounting sunset photo problems

Shooting the sunset may give rise to a photographic problem or two:

  • The picture is brighter than the scene. Cameras have a tendency to slightly overexpose scenes such as sunsets. Dial in enough exposure compensation until the picture you get matches the scene in front of you.

  • The sun is an orange blob. Digital cameras can’t record the brightness range in a scene like a sunset. If the sun is blown out (over-exposed, with no detail), use exposure compensation to reduce the exposure or compose the picture so that the sun is behind some vegetation or a tall tree.

  • The ocean is too dark. Cameras can’t record the same dynamic range of brightness that human eyes can see. Therefore, the exposure is often a compromise; you get a properly exposed sky but a dark ocean. If you like to photograph sunsets, consider investing in a graduated neutral density filter, which darkens the sky without affecting the rest of the picture.